Uno Dino flits around his house, gathering things he’ll need for a day’s adventures, like his clip book and a few oversized paint pens he shoves into a blue backpack. His room is a mess—an unmade bed, clothes on the floor, a box of spray cans cluttering the doorway. Downstairs a maid whom Dino has known most of his life tells him good-bye in doleful tones. It’s late August and he’ll be driving out of state in a few days to attend his second year of college.
A half hour later, further out West End Boulevard, Dino (pronounced DINE-O) walks between train tracks toward galleries far out of public view. It’s a well-worn path. For more than 20 years, spray can artists have trekked to overpasses covering these tracks to hone their craft. It’s a strange ritual, as they could just as easily paint identical images in their own homes without the threat of cops, bums or trains speeding by at 35 m.p.h.
But staying at home, obviously, isn’t what graffiti is about. Kids have been scrawling their names in urban areas since at least the early 19th century. But it wasn’t until the 1960s, when a teenager named Demetrius began writing Taki 183 in subway stations all over Manhattan, that an art form was born in earnest. Taki, a nickname, and 183, a street number, wasn’t beautiful because it possessed an inherent aesthetic quality. Imitators recognized its value because, in a densely populated city like New York, where everyone envisions their name in lights, tags gave marginalized young men a very public identity.
“I look at graffiti as a way of communicating,” Dino explains. “People are saying something, but only a few are listening. Graffiti writers are the ones getting something out of it. It’s like a tag starts a dialogue. It can come out of nowhere. ‘Here I am. Who are you?’ Networking is a good way to describe it.”
Of course, most of the public detests the graffiti writer. We have trained ourselves to ignore the slanted, exaggerated, balloon-like letters on the sides of vacant buildings and garbage dumpsters as the work of vandals. The audience, then, for graffiti is mainly those young men who like to write it because it’s fun, because they like the adrenaline rush escaping police provides, and because their egos won’t allow them not to write it.
“It’s fame and cockiness,” says Blaze, who, like every spray can artist mentioned in this story, wants very few details of his personal life revealed. Blaze was one of the city’s more prolific writers in the mid-1990s, throwing up more than 1,000 tags around town before retiring several years ago. “I thought my dick was bigger than everyone else’s. Every kid is full of himself. They think they’re the hottest thing around until they get older and feel like everyone else. It’s a matter of growing up.”
Dino, who has been writing off and on for three years, is less competitive than Blaze and has no illusions about becoming a great graffiti writer. Dino considers himself a “toy,” which is graffiti-speak for someone who is inexperienced or incompetent. “I don’t think I’m anything special,” he says.
Maybe he could have developed his skills writing his tag on every grimy underpass in Nashville, but he could never get over the feeling that he might get caught and sent to jail. “I really started to freak out as I started getting more serious about painting,” he says. “I lost my spine. It was a survival thing. It prevented me from getting arrested but kept me from gaining in stature.”
Besides, Dino isn’t as interested in his tag as other graffiti artists are in theirs. He prefers to draw or stencil images, mostly dinosaurs, especially the three-horned triceratops. His first graffiti moment came three years ago when he stenciled a triceratops on a utility box not far from his West Side home. He was so proud of it, he showed it to friends while at a party. But the friends seemed more interested in a face a graffitist named Down free-handed next to the dinosaur. Their dismissal of his work gave Dino the idea that painting graffiti was a more valuable skill than stenciling it.
Since Dino decided he isn’t a very public artist, he’s become a very private one. He’s one of the few in Nashville who has his own private gallery—not in his home, but underneath a train bridge several miles up the tracks from here, not far from a golf course. At the site, he’s drawn murals of reptiles and octopi and strange, balloon-like designs similar to traditional graffiti. He says he thinks about his gallery, which is more like a refuge or an open-air clubhouse, even when he’s away on vacation. “My life is stuck to the walls in Nashville,” he says.
Dino approaches an underpass where graffiti writers have been known to draw for 20 years. He expects to find drawings by some of his favorite artists, like Zew and Down, but instead finds a purple and green kaleidoscope, painted next to a creek. In the middle, in large balloon letters, are the words Erak or Crak, Dino can’t determine which. Underneath the painting are the slogans “Phenomenal Epiphanies” and “Big Words, Big Style!”
Dino finds the mural dreadfully unappealing. “Bullshit words,” he says, “bullshit style.”
On another side of the same underpass, Dino sees graffiti more to his liking, by guys he admires—Smok, one of the city’s more prolific writers, and Zew, both members of the IA crew, one of two graffiti gangs in the city. (IA is named for the last two letters in “mafia.”) The paintings have some of the hallmarks of traditional graffiti—for example, liberal uses of quote marks and arrows, which give the “pieces” (short for masterpieces) movement and pizzazz. “It makes it look like it’s jumping off the wall,” Dino says. On two ends of his piece, Smok has written the words “chump” and “change” inside three-pointed crowns, symbolizing he is king of the artists, at least in this area. “He’s saying, ‘This is chump change to me, toys.’ ”
Of course, you don’t always need an experienced eye like Dino’s to determine what is craft and what is crap. A month after he leaves for college, graffiti writers hit the bleachers and press box over the weekend at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, just south of Fisk University. Monday morning, as gray clouds begin to blow over the campus, three workers, dressed all in white, comb the bleachers, scouting the damage.
Whoever the writers were, they were definitely fixated on the male anatomy. The word “penis” is painted in purple on a window of the press box. “NAMBLA,” the organization promoting man-boy love, is scrawled in gold on pavement close to the field. “EAT DICK” is written vertically on rows of bleachers, one letter per row, as if the letters were intended to be a cheering section. A crudely drawn stickman, which could be a dog, is painted on all fours in front of a stickman with an oversized erect penis. In the event this spray-paint porn weren’t clear enough, the “artist” painted the word “boy” and an arrow pointing at the submissive stickman.
This kind of graffiti is nothing new. Every school in Nashville’s public school system has been bombed with similar drawings. In fact, MLK had been vandalized with identical words and images a week earlier, though workmen don’t believe the same vandals acted twice because their handwritings are different. But every school in the district sees its share of vulgar scrawling. The vandals “don’t discriminate,” says one of the workers, Thomas, who has been employed by Metro schools more than 30 years, and who prefers to have only his first name printed for fear bill collectors will see his name in print. “It’s pretty random. We’ve been called to almost all the schools. They hit the rich part of town as well as the poor part.”
The workers have seen all kinds of graffiti—R.I.P. sendoffs to departed friends, curse words, gang signs, rebel flags, a “nice and pretty” nature scene drawn on the end of a portable trailer, which Thomas was sorry to see “buffed” or erased. “There was nothing bad about it except that he drew it on the end of a portable,” he says. They’ve also seen pranks that have graffiti overtones, like the Antioch High students who snuck onto the Overton High football field and burned a large A in the middle of the field.
If graffiti in the city proper has remained about the same for 20 years, it’s definitely increased in Metro schools, much of it perverted, penis-fixated vulgarity. “It used to be ‘fuck,’ ” says Jeff Durham, one of the other workers who is thinking about opening a graffiti-removal side business to earn extra cash. “Now it’s different.”
Thomas estimates the cleanup will take all day, but the crew is finished before lunchtime, despite a downpour that sends them to their white van for half an hour. The writing on the bleachers proves to be easily removed with lacquer thinner and Goof Off. Thomas dons a white hood and goggles to sand-blast the concrete free of paint, which takes about 15 minutes.
“That’s how that goes,” says Anthony Lawrence, the third member of the crew. “But you ain’t seen nothing yet.” Indeed, it’s a long school year. The crew is only just beginning. “Can you imagine doing this in the winter?” Thomas says. “They’ll have us out here when it’s 32 degrees, getting snowed on.”
The vandals who hit MLK, like most graffitists, probably will never be caught. According to Metro Police Sgt. Gary Kemper, the department’s gang squad arrests only three or four gang-related graffiti writers each year. (Police patrols also apprehend artists, but the number is unknown because graffiti is statistically lumped in with other vandalism-related crimes.) As Kemper points out, gangbangers aren’t necessarily graffitists, and vice versa. “They’re two different worlds,” he says. “We don’t pay a lot of attention to graffiti artists.”
The three or four writers the gang squad catches annually might not even be gangbangers. They’re probably wannabes riding around, drinking beer, tagging stop signs with images they’ve seen somewhere. “Just because they put up Sur 13 [an Hispanic gang sign] doesn’t make them a gang member,” Kemper says. “A lot of times Hispanic gangs will put their names with it—Spooky, Bones, Gordo or whatever. There’s a reason for that. They’re saying, ‘We’re here. We did it. Screw you.’ ”
To the mainstream public, differentiating between spray can crews and street gangs can be difficult. But crews traditionally don’t carry guns or sell drugs. Crew members are mainly interested in watching the backs of other writers while they paint. “We’re not gangsters, but we are gang-like,” says Haspe, a well-known writer who has been traveling back and forth between here and New York City for years. (Haspe pronounces his name HASP. When tagging, he sometimes drops the “e” from his name.)
Haspe helped form the IA gang in the mid-1990s. The crew, now in its third generation, contains about 10 active writers at any given time. “We’re less organized then we used to be,” Haspe says. “Everybody’s all grown up. Two of us are business owners.”
Some spray can artists say no one is a true graffitist unless they steal paint rather than buy it. One trick is to simply walk into a Dollar General, shove a backpack full of spray paint, and walk out with a wave and a smile to the cashier. But Haspe says pilfering resources is a thing of the past. “Most artists come from money and don’t have to steal paint,” he says.
Nashville has never had artists on the level of a Bil Blast, who painted a famous mural in Manhattan called “The Sky’s the Limit” in 1982, a picturesque vision of New York City at dusk. Or a Seen, a New Yorker who tagged the two Ls in the Hollywood sign in red and white paint in 1986.
But some of graffiti’s royalty have spent time here writing. Crews like AM7 (Seven Miles Ahead), TDK (Those Damn Kids) or IMK (Ill Minded Kids) had members such as Beno, Masev and Sever who were educated in Miami and Los Angeles, both of which have an infinitely larger graffiti scene than Nashville. (Los Angeles County spends about $10 million annually to remove graffiti; Davidson County doesn’t even have a graffiti abatement team since most mark-ups are done on private property.)
The new arrivals met inexperienced locals, like Blaze, who is from Belle Meade, at a legal graffiti wall on Dickerson Road, which served as a kind of learning ground for the less talented. “As far as graffiti goes, [the locals] were painting, but we sucked,” Blaze remembers. “We just kind of watched, learned, painted.”
Not yet 30, Blaze officially retired last year from graffiti life. He’s begun to think about important things like job stability and maintaining a clean driving record. But in the late 1990s, Blaze was as prolific a spray paint artist as Nashville has ever seen. He estimates he’s thrown up more than 1,000 tags. He hit the walls along I-440, which has long been a graffiti hotspot, though most artists have now grown tired of that area. Carrying a backpack and milk crates, he tagged billboards along the I-24 corridor. He’s bombed rail yards and underpasses, the Elliston and Belmont areas—even etching his name in barroom mirrors. Government buildings were a particular favorite. So were corporate spots like Wendy’s or Wal-Mart, conglomerations he feels could afford to buff his work.
Blaze remembers being tackled by railroad cops, who beat up some of his crew, and chased on many occasions by “heroes,” who are to graffiti artists what the Minutemen are to illegals—everyday do-gooders who wanted to detain him for police. “I’ve had bums try to grab me, probably because they were drunk and had nothing better to do.” He says his crew once painted every bus in the MTA lot only to see them buffed before they rolled off the lot the next morning. He drove to Miami and back on stolen gas for the privilege of spending a few days painting with a crew down south.
Metro government formed a task force—comprised of officials from the mayor’s office, the CSX railroad corporation, Metro schools and the Public Works Department—to stop guys like Blaze. The task force had no budget and little support from police or prosecutors. It disbanded before Mayor Bill Purcell took office. “Police have better things to do than catch graffiti artists,” says Don Knoch, a former Sheriff’s Office employee and task force member whose pet peeve is graffiti. “But even when graffiti artists were caught, there was no follow-through in court.” Knoch says writers’ families are usually able to persuade prosecutors to be lenient. “These kids are from white, upper-middle-class homes,” he says. “Their parents are doctors and lawyers.”
The task force apparently had little effect on artists. Blaze laughs when he hears about Knoch’s group. He’d never known it existed.
Back on the tracks in the west side of town, we arrive at some of Dino’s work, underneath yet another underpass: a white triceratops underneath the word “dinosaur” he painted the night before. Dino has printed, “No one to impress. All my peers are dead,” a response, he says, to an artist who scrawled “not impressed” in between Dino’s dinosaur and an eight-color piece by an up-and-coming artist named Tier. “It’s another case of a toy with a loud voice who doesn’t have much to say,” Dino says of the unimpressed graffitist.
Up higher, Dino drew another triceratops, this one smiling, alongside the slogan “Testify, the extinct have risen,” an acknowledgment, he says, to his own return to graffiti after laying off for months while attending college. But the highlight of this section of underpass is Tier’s red, white and yellow piece simply because of its size and vibrancy. “I think Tier is an amazing artist,” Dino says.
Dino describes Tier, who also paints as Tier 2, as someone bitten by the graffiti bug. But among the general graffiti population, he is considered a loose cannon because he gets carried away by writing on the front of buildings and across doorways, especially around the funky Elliston Place shopping area. Veteran graffitists generally consider such writing to go against their informal codes of conduct.
Tier is one of two artists Dino has actually met face-to-face. They arranged to meet at a party several years ago, got drunk and painted in places Dino would have rather avoided. The other artist Dino has met is another up-and-comer who goes by Down, probably best known for painting a tag on a Cartoon Network billboard on Charlotte Avenue earlier this summer. Tier and Down, along with Smok, are the city’s most prolific writers at the moment. They were friends up until last year when police broke up a group of artists painting along Charlotte Avenue, reportedly because Tier parked too close to the site and left his keys in the car, leading police to believe they’d found a stolen vehicle. They arrested Tier but let Down go because, technically, he didn’t have a spray can in his hand when police arrived. That discrepancy led Tier to assume Down had given prosecutors information about him. Consequently, Tier has gone around town crossing out Down’s tags and writing the word “snitch” next to Down’s name in at least one location. Down, in turn, has crossed over some of Tier’s tags. It’s the graffiti equivalent of a schoolyard fight.
Down, an art student who drives a crappy car, shrugs off the conflict as just one of those things. But Blaze says Tier is too immature to realize he’s wrong. “If I was younger,” says Blaze, “I’d fuck him up.”
Their rivalry is but one of the many aspects of the graffiti culture the rest of Nashville is oblivious to, though, like graffiti itself, the conflict is very much public. Nowhere is the feud more apparent than in the alley on the south side of Elliston Place, which artists, mostly Tier, have tagged from one end to the other. In fact, Tier went kind of crazy, painting the red brick wall of a business in white letters with a crown over his name, signifying his dominance as king. He also lined through one of Down’s large throw-ups on the second-story wall outside of Smack Clothing, an L.A.-inspired boutique whose back door Tier unceremoniously tagged several weeks ago.
To the Elliston business crowd, the feud makes little sense. “What does that do for the neighborhood?” asks Frank Hall, the wiry manager of the Gold Rush tavern. “I don’t think it’s gang-related, but I don’t know for sure.”
Hall says he spends about $1,000 each year paying to paint over graffiti in the Gold Rush’s bathrooms. To him, the unintelligible graffiti in the alley isn’t much different than the goofy letters printed on the Rush’s bathroom stalls. “It doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Hall, who has played guitar over the years for bands like the Serendipity Singers. “I wouldn’t run out to Bellevue, sit in someone’s front yard and play my guitar. The problem is going over and over and over the walls. Where is the line between art and destruction of property?”
Several doors down from the Gold Rush is The End, a gritty rock club whose owner, Bruce Fitzpatrick, appreciates Tier’s art so much he’s commissioned him to paint graffiti inside the bar’s courtyard. (Fitzpatrick says Tier did the job for free.) He was introduced to Tier through friends of friends, Fitzpatrick says, and chose him because he’d appeared in graffiti magazines. “Some people view this as vandalism,” he says, “but I look at it as artwork.”
If it is indeed artwork, the Elliston crowd doesn’t seem impressed. “My youngest grandkids could do a better job,” says Arlene Wey, the mother of Smack owner Rob Wey, who was eating lunch behind the counter two weeks ago. “Most of the stuff out there is just crap.” She prefers the graffiti she saw in San Diego showing porpoises and fish jumping from the water. “I guess we don’t care [about the graffiti] as long as it’s not vulgar. We don’t like it painted on our door. We spent money to paint that door.”
Dino would ask that critics give graffiti a second chance. “Yeah, graffiti can be ugly,” he says. “But it’s an act of self expression and a staple of urban culture. It’s not going anywhere. But because it’s going to be around and you choose to ignore it means you’re missing information that could be useful to you. When I started looking at every little thing, things started talking back to me.”
Not far from his dinosaur pieces, he finds a couple of empty purple paint cans a writer must have jettisoned in a hurry. To Dino, they’re golden. He smashes one open with a heavy piece of steel he finds near the tracks. On impact, the can spews purple up in the air, covering one of Dino’s arms. Finally, he holds up a metal marble that he’s pried from the can—all of them have one inside; it’s the noise you hear when you shake a can—the reason for all his effort. “It’s something cool to have,” he says.
As we leave the train overpass, we must scale a thick concrete wall filled with graffiti. But before Dino climbs over, he brandishes another spray can he’s found, this one quite full. In purple letters, he writes three letters backwards, which are difficult to read. Since mostly graffiti artists and vagrants travel this area, few people will ever see it. Those who do will probably ignore it. It is a questionable work of art given that it doesn’t look particularly artistic. It was done with minimal skill in a matter of seconds. Yet it’s also a felony because the value of the concrete slab likely exceeds $500, the threshold for determining felonious vandalism in Tennessee. If a cop, instead of me, had been standing next to Dino, the kid would have been charged with a serious crime.
Does Dino deserve it? The throw-up seems much less a crime than a whimsical gesture from a bored kid. As Dino himself will tell you, it’s just graffiti, after all.